In May of 2004, I went to the Double Door to see Pinetop Perkins, who had spent years playing piano for Muddy Waters. The place was packed, and the band was fantastic. Fellow Muddy Waters band alums Bob Margolin, and Willie Smith put on an excellent show. But the big surprise lay in the middle of the show.
About forty minutes into the show, Margolin announced, “We’d like to have Nappy Brown come up and do a song.” I had heard about Nappy Brown, but had yet to see him. Nappy was one of the first North Carolina musicians to break through when rock and roll, and rhythm & blues began to merge. Songs like “Don’t Be Angry” (which Brown also wrote) made the national charts, and another song that Brown adapted, “Night Time (Is The Right Time),” would soon become a worldwide smash for Ray Charles. After spending years devoted to gospel music, Margolin convinced Brown to return to the blues music scene.
Watching Nappy Brown onstage was like watching a ball of fire flash by you. Brown was all of six foot five, rail thin, and strutting as he came on stage. Brown, as he often did, took over the show. Soon, he was rolling on the floor, both on stage, and in the audience. Sitting on ladies’ laps and undoing his shirt, all while singing and shouting, and urging the band on. It was unbelievable. I took so many photos that night of Brown, documenting as his one song turned into a 25 minute set. (I’ve heard that this often happened with Brown.)
Brown came from his musical family. He formed a gospel group with his cousin, Clyde Wright in the late 1940s, and the group sang on WBT, and other stations in the Southeast. Wright would go on to join the legendary Golden Gate Quartet in 1954, and is with that group to this day. In the meantime, Brown jumped into R&B, recording often for the Savoy Records label.
After Margolin coaxed Brown back into performing his R&B songs on stage, a whole new audience began to discover him. I got to see Brown a few times, including at a Savoy Records reunion in 2006. In the last years of his life, Brown finally got the due that he deserved. Appearances on Prairie Home Companion, a new album, and the respect of his peers. I only wish that I had seen him Brown more.
Shortly after Brown passed away in 2009, I ran into Brown's old friend and bass player, Mookie Brill. I had recently interviewed Mookie for my Double Door Inn book. Brill was upset that Brown did not have a headstone, and that some members of his family were not being helpful. I suggested that a benefit concert be held to raise the necessary funds, and suggested a few names that might be willing to be involved.
A week later, Brill excitedly called me to tell me about the concert that they'd lined up. When Brill and I had talked, it was very late in the evening (early morning, actually), and between that and my work-related exhaustion that evening, I totally forgot that we'd had that conversation. But, I was proud to have had a hand in the benefit, even though all of the credit should go to Brill. The event itself was a fabulous success, and my photos in the Observer the following week helped to raise more money. There is now a lovely tombstone at Nappy Brown's grave, which will hopefully always mark the resting place for one of the amazing singers, and performers I ever saw.
Oct. 25, 2012